The Captives
335 Pages

The Captives


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The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Captives, by Hugh Walpole
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Title: The Captives
Author: Hugh Walpole
Posting Date: April 19, 2009 [EBook #3601] Release Date: January, 2003 First Posted: June 6, 2001
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. HTML version by Al Haines.
The Captives
Hugh Walpole
"I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any of us may make to the religious appeal. God Himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithlessness, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears ..."
Death leapt upon the Rev. Charles Cardinal, Rector of St. Dreots in South Glebeshire, at the moment that he bent down towards the second long drawer of his washhand-stand; he bent down to find a clean collar. It is in its way a symbol of his whole life, that death claimed him before he could find one.
At one moment his mind was intent upon his collar; at the next he was stricken with a wild surmise, a terror that even at that instant he would persuade himself was exaggerated. He saw before his clouding eyes a black pit. A strong hand striking him in the middle of his back flung him contemptuously forward into it; a gasping cry of protest and all was over. Had time been permitted him he would have stretched out a hand towards the shabby black box that, true to all miserly convention, occupied the space beneath his bed. Time was not allowed him. He might take with him into the darkness neither money nor clean clothing.
He had been told on many occasions about his heart, that he must not excite nor strain it. He allowed that to pass as he allowed ma ny other things because his imagination was fixed upon one ambition, and one alone. He had made, upon this last and fatal occasion, haste to find his collar because the bell had begun its Evensong clatter and he did not wish to-night to be late. The bell continued to ring and he lay his broad widespread length upon the floor. He was a large and dirty man.
The shabby old house was occupied with its customary life. Down in the kitchen Ellen the cook was snatching a moment from her labours to drink a cup of tea. She sat at the deal table, her full bosom pressed by the boards, her saucer balanced on her hand; she blew, with little heaving pants, at her tea to cool it. Her thoughts were with a new hat and some red roses with which she would trim it; she looked out with little shivers of content at the falling winter's dusk: Anne the kitchen-maid scoured the pans; her bony frame seemed to rattle as she scrubbed with her red hands; she was happy because she was hungry and there would be a beef-steak pudding for dinner. She sang to herself as she worked.
Upstairs in the dining-room Maggie Cardinal, the only child of the Rev. Charles, sat sewing. She hoard the jangling of the church hell; she heard also, suddenly, with a surprise that made her heart beat for a moment with furious leaps, a tapping on the window-pane. Then directly after that she fancied that there came from her father's room above the thud of some sudden fall or collapse. She listened. The bell swallowed all other noise. She thought that she had been mistaken, but the tapping at the window began again, now insistent; the church bell suddenly stopped and in the silence that followed one could hear the slight creak of some bough driven by the sea-wind against the wall.
The curtains were not drawn and where the curve of the hill fell away the sky was faintly yellow; some cold stars like points of ice pierced the higher blue; carelessly, as though with studied indifference, flakes of snow fell, turning grey against the lamp-lit windows, then vanishing utterly. Maggie, going to the window, saw a dark shapeless figure beyond the glass. For an instant she was invaded by the terror of her surprised loneliness, then she remembered her father and the warm kitchen, then realised that this figure in the dark must be her Uncle Mathew.
She went out into the hall, pushed back the stiff, clumsy handle of the door, and stepped on to the gravel path. She called out, laughing:
"Come in! You frightened me out of my life."
As he came towards her she felt the mingled kindness and irritation that he always roused in her. He stood in the light of the hall lamp, a fat man, a soft hat pushed to the back of his head, a bag in one hand. His face was w eak and good-tempered, his eyes had once been fine but now they were dim and blurred; there were dimples in his fat cheeks; he wore on his upper lip a ragged and untidy moustache and he had two indeterminate chins. His expression was mild, kindly, now a little ashamed, now greatly indignant. It was a pity, as he often said, that he had not more control over his feelings. Maggie saw at once that he was, as usual, a little drunk.
"Well," she said. "Come in, Uncle. Father is in church, I think," she added.
Uncle Mathew stepped with careful deliberation into the hall, put his bag on a chair, and began a long, rambling explanation.
"You know, Maggie, that I would have sent you a post card if I had had an idea, but, upon my soul, there I was suddenly in Drymouth on important business. I thought to myself on waking this morning—I took a room at the 'Three Tuns'—'Why, there are Charles and Maggie whom I haven't seen for an age.' I'd have sent you a telegram but the truth is, my dear, that I didn't want to spend a penny more than I must. Things haven't been going so well with me of late. It's a long story. I want your father's advice. I've had the worst of luck and I could tell you one or two things that would simply surprise you—but anyway, there it is. Just for a night I'm sure you won't mind. To-
morrow or the day after I must be back in town or this thing will slip right through my fingers. These days one must be awake or one's simply nowhere."
He paused and nodded his head very solemnly at her, looking, as he did so, serious and important.
It was thus that he always appeared, "for one night only," but staying for weeks and weeks in spite of the indignant protests of his brother Charles who had never liked him and grudged the expense of his visits. Maggie herself took his appearance as she did everything else in her life with good-tempered philosophy. She had an affection for her uncle; she wished that he did not drink so much, but had he made a success of life she would not have cared for him as she did. After all every one had their weaknesses ...
She steered her uncle into the dining-room and placed him on a chair beside the fire. In all his movements he attempted restraints and dignity because he knew that he was drunk but hoped that his niece, in spite of her long experience of him, would not perceive it. At the same time he knew that she did perceive it and would perhaps scold him about it. This made him a little indignant because, after all, he had only taken the tiniest drop—one drop at Drymouth, another at Liskane station, and another at "The Hearty Cow" at Clinton St. Mary, just before his start on his cold lonely walk to St. Dreot's. He hoped that he would prevent her criticism by his easy pleasant talk, so on he chattered.
She sat down near him and continuing to sew smiled at him, wondered what there was for dinner and the kind of mood that her father would be in when he found his dear brother here.
Maggie Cardinal, at the time, was nineteen years of age. She was neither handsome nor distinguished, plain indeed, although her mild, good-natured eyes had in their light a quality of vitality and interest that gave her personality; her figure was thick and square —she would be probably stout one day. She moved like a man. Behind the mildness of her eyes there was much character and resolve in her carriage, in the strong neck, the firm breasts, the mouth resolute and determined. She had now the fine expectation of her youth, her health, her optimism, her ignorance of the world. When these things left her she would perhaps be a yet plainer woman. In her dress she was not clever. Her clothes were ugly with the coarse drab grey of their material and the unskilful workmanship that had created them. And yet there would be some souls who would see in her health, her youth, the kind sympathy of her eyes and mouth, the high nobility of her forehead from which her hair was brushed back, an attraction that might hold them more deeply than an obvious beauty.
Uncle Mathew although he was a silly man was one of these perceptive souls, and had he not been compelled by his circumstances to think continually about himself, would have loved his niece very dearly. As it was, he thought her a fine girl when he thought of her at all, and wished her more success in life than her "poor old uncle" had had. He looked at her now across the fireplace with satisfaction. She was something sure and pleasant in a world that swayed and was uncertain. He was drunk enough to feel happy so long as he was not scolded. He dreaded the moment when his brother Charles would appear, and he strove to arrange in his mind the wise and unanswerable word with which he would defend himself, but his thoughts slipped just as the firelight slipped and the floors with the old threadbare carpet.
Then suddenly the hall door opened with a jangle, there were steps in the hall, and Old Timmie Carthewe the sexton appeared in the dining-room. He had a goat's face and
a body like a hairpin.
"Rector's not been to service," he said. "There's Miss Dunnett and Mrs. Giles and the two Miss Backshaws. I'm feared he's forgotten."
Maggie started up. Instantly to her mind came the memory of that fancied sound from her father's room. She listened now, her head raised, and the two men, their eyes bleared but their noses sniffing as though they were dogs, listened also. There were certain sounds, clocks ticking, the bough scraping on the wall, a cart's echo on the frozen road, the maid singing far in the depths of the house. Maggie nodded her head.
"I'll go and see," she said.
She went into the hall and stood again listening. Then she called, "Father! Father!" but there was no answer. She had never in all her life been frightened by anything and she was not frightened now; nevertheless, as she went up the stairs, she looked behind her to see whether any one followed her.
She called again "Father!" then went to his door, pushed it open, and looked in. The room was cold with a faint scent of tallow candle and damp.
In the twilight she saw her father's body lying like a shadow stretched right across the floor, with the grey dirty fingers of one hand clenched.
After that events followed swiftly. Maggie herself had no time nor opportunity for any personal emotion save a dumb kind of wonder that she did not feel more. But she saw all "through a glass darkly." There had been first that moment when the sexton and Uncle Mathew, still like dogs sniffing, had peered with their eyes through her father's door. Then there had been the summoning of Dr. Bubbage from the village, his self-importance, his continual "I warned him. I warned him. He can't say I didn't warn him," and then (very dim and far away) "Thank you, Miss Cardinal. I think I will have a glass if you don't mind." There had been cook crying in the kitchen (her red roses intended for Sunday must now be postponed) and the maid sniffing in the hall. There had been Uncle Mathew, muddled and confused, but clinging to his one idea that "the best thing you can do, my dear, is to send for your Aunt Anne." There had been the telegram dispatched to Aunt Anne, and then after that the house had seemed quite filled with people—ladies who had—wished to know whether they could help her in any way and even the village butcher who was there for no reason but stood in the hall rubbing his hands on his thighs and sniffing. All these persons Maggie surveyed through a mist. She was calm and collected and empty of all personality; Maggie Cardinal, the real Maggie Cardinal, was away on a visit somewhere and would not be back for a time or two.
Then suddenly as the house had filled so suddenly it emptied. Maggie found that she was desperately tired. She went to bed and slept instantly. On waking next morning she was aware that it was a most beautiful winter's day and that there was something strange in the air. There came to her then very slowly a sense of her father. She saw him on the one side, persistently as she had found him in his room, strange, shapeless, with a crumpled face and a dirty beard that seemed to be more dead than the rest of him. On the other side she saw him as she had found him in the first days of her consciousness of the world.
He must have been "jolly" then, large and strong, laughing often, tossing her, she remembered, to the ceiling, his beard jet-black and his eyebrows bushy and overhanging. Once that vigour, afterwards this horror. She shook away from her last vision of him but it returned again and again, hanging about her over her shoulder like an ill-omened
messenger. And all the life between seemed to be suddenly wiped away as a sponge wipes figures off a slate. After the death of her mother she had made the best of her circumstances. There had been many days when life had been unpleasant, and in the last year, as his miserliness had grown upon him, his ill-temper at any fancied extravagance had been almost that of an insane man, but Maggie knew very little of the affairs of other men and it seemed to her that every one had some disadvantage with which to grapple. She did not pretend to care for her father, she was very lonely because the villagers hated him, but she had always made the best of everything because she had never had an intimate friend to tell her that that was a foolish thing to do.
It was indeed marvellous how isolated her life had been; she knew simply nothing about the world at all.
She could not pretend that she was sorry that her father had died; and yet she missed him because she knew very well that she was now no one's business, that she was utterly and absolutely alone in the universe. It might be said that she could not be utterly alone when she had her Uncle Mathew, but, although she was ignorant of life, she knew her Uncle Mathew ... Nevertheless, he did something to remove the sharp alarm of her sudden isolation. Upon the day after her father's death he was at his very best, his kindest, and most gentle. He was rather pathetic, having drunk nothing out of respect to the occasion; he felt, somewhere deep down in him, a persistent exaltation that his brother Charles was dead, but he knew that it was not decent to allow this feeling to conquer him and he was truly anxious to protect and comfort his niece so well as he was able. Early in the afternoon he suggested that they should go for a walk. Everything necessary had been done. An answer to their telegram had been received from his sister Anne that she could not leave London until that night but would arrive at Clinton St. Mary station at half-past nine to-morrow morning. That would be in good time for the funeral, a ceremony that was to be conducted by the Rev. Tom Trefusis, the sporting vicar of Cator Hill, the neighbouring parish.
The house now was empty and silent. They must escape from that figure, now decent, clean, and solemn, lying upon the bed upstairs. Mathew took his niece by the hand and said:
"My dear, a little fresh air is the thing for both of us. It will cheer you up."
So they went out for a walk together. Maggie knew, with a deep and intimate experience, every lane and road within twenty miles' radius of St. Dreot's, There was the high-road that went through Gator Hill to Clinton and then to Polwint; here were the paths across the fields to Lucent, the lanes that led to the valley of the Lisp, all the paths like spiders' webs through Rothin Wood, from whose curve you could see Polchester, grey and white, with its red-brown roofs and the spires of the Cathedral thrusting like pointing fingers into the heaven. It was the Polchester View that she chose to-day, but as they started through the deep lanes down the St. Dreot's hill she was startled and disturbed by the strange aspect which everything wore to her. She had not as yet realised the great shock her father's death had been; she wa s exhausted, spiritually and physically, in spite of the deep sleep of the night before. The form and shape of the world was a little strained and fantastic, the colo urs uncertain, now vivid, now vanishing, the familiar trees, hedges, clouds, screens, as it were, concealing some scene that was being played behind them. But beyond and above all other sensations she was conscious of her liberty. She struggled against this; she should be conscious, before everything, of her father's loss. But she was not. It meant to her at present not so much the loss of a familiar figure as the sudden juggling, by an outside future, of all the regular incidents and scenes of her daily life, as at a pantomime one sees by a
transformation of the scenery, the tables, the chairs, and pictures the walls dance to an unexpected jig. She was free, free, free—alone but free. What form her life would take she did not know, what troubles and sorrows in the future there might be she did not care —to-morrow her life would begin.
Although unsentimental she was tender-hearted and affectionate, but now, for many years, her life with her father had been a daily battle of ever-increasing anger and bitterness. It may be that once he had loved her; that had been in those days when she was not old enough to love him ... since she had known him he had loved only money. She would have loved him had he allowed her, and because he did not she bore him no grudge. She had always regarded her life, sterile and unprofitable as it was, with humour until now when, like a discarded dress, it had slipped behind her. She did not see it, even now, with bitterness; there was no bitterness for anything in her character.
As they walked Uncle Mathew was considering her for the first time. On the other occasions when he had stayed in his brother's house he had been greatly occupied with his own plans—requests for money (invariably refused) schemes for making money, plots to frighten his brother out of one or other of his possessions. He had been frankly predatory, and that plain, quiet girl his niece had been pleasant company but no more. Now she was suddenly of the first importance. She w ould in all probability inherit a considerable sum. How much there might be in that black box under the bed one could not say, but surely you could not be so relentless a miser for so long a period without accumulating a very agreeable amount. Did the girl realise that she would, perhaps, be rich? Uncle Mathew licked his lips with his tongue. So quiet and self-possessed was she that you could not tell what she was thinking. Were she only pretty she might marry anybody. As it was, with that figure ... But she was a good girl. Uncle Mathew felt kind and tender-hearted towards her. He would advise her about life of which he had had a very considerable experience, and of which, of course, she knew nothing. His heart was warm, although it would have been warmer still had he been able to drink a glass of something before starting out.
"And what will you do now, my dear, do you think?" he asked.
They had left the deep lanes and struck across the hard-rutted fields. A thin powder of snow lay upon the land, and under the yellow light of the winter sky the surface was blue, shadowed with white patches where the snow had fallen more thickly. The trees and hedges were black and hard against the white horizon that was tightly stretched like the paper of a Japanese screen. The smell of burning wood was in the air, and once and again a rook slowly swung its wheel, cutting the air as it flew. The cold was so pleasantly sharp that it was the best possible thing for Uncle Mathew, who was accustomed to an atmosphere of hissing gas, unwashen glasses, and rinds of cheese.
Maggie did not answer his question but herself asked one.
"Uncle Mathew, do you believe in religion?"
"Religion, my dear?" answered her uncle, greatly startled at so unusual a question. "What sort of religion?"
"The kind of religion that father preached about ev ery Sunday—the Christian religion."
"To tell you the truth, my dear," he answered confidentially, "I've never had much time to think about it. With some men, you see, it's part of their lives, and with others —well, it isn't. My lines never ran that way."
"Was father very religious when he was young?"
"No, I can't say that he was. But then we never got on, your father and I. Our lines didn't run together at all. But I shouldn't have called him a religious man."
"Then all this time father has been lying?"
Her uncle gazed at her apprehensively. He did not wish to undermine her faith in her father on the very day after his death, but he was so ignorant about her, her thoughts and beliefs and desires, that he did not know what her idea of her father had been. His idea of him had always been that he was a dirty, miserly scoundrel, but that was not quite the thing for a daughter to feel, and there was an innocence and simplicity about Maggie that perplexed him.
"I can't truly say that I ever knew what your father's private feelings were. He never cared for me enough to tell me. He may have been very religious in his real thoughts. We never discussed such things."
Maggie turned round upon him.
"I know. You're pretending. You've said to yourself, 'I mustn't tell her what I think about her father the very day after his death, that isn't a pleasant thing to do.' We've all got to pretend that he was splendid. But he wasn't—never. Who can know it better than I? Didn't he worry mother until she died? Didn't he lead me an awful life always, and aren't I delighted now that he's dead? It's everything to me. I've longed for this day for years, and now we've got to pretend that we're sorry and that it would be a good thing if he were alive. It wouldn't be a good thing—it would be a bad thing for every one. He was a bad man and I hated him."
Then, quite suddenly, she cried. Turning away from her uncle she folded her face in her arms like a small child and sobbed. Standing, looking at her bent shoulders, her square, ugly figure, her shabby old hat with its dingy black ribbon, pushed a little to the side of her head, Uncle Mathew thought that she was a most uncomprehensible girl. If she felt like that about her father why should she cry; and if she cried she must surely have some affection for his memory. All he could say was:
"There, there, my dear—Well, well. It's all right." He felt foolish and helpless.
She turned round at last, drying her eyes. "It's such a shame," she said, still sobbing, "that that's what I shall feel about him. He's all I had and that's what I feel. But if you knew—if you knew—all the things he did."
They walked on again, entering Rothin Wood. "He nev er tried to make me religious," she went on. "He didn't care what I felt. I sat in the choir, and I took a Sunday-school class, and I visited the villagers, but I, myself—what happened to me —he didn't care. He never took any trouble about the church, he just gabbled the prayers and preached the same old sermons. People in the village said it was a scandal and that he ought to be turned out but no one ever did anything. They'll clean everything up now. There'll be a new clergyman. They'll mend the holes in the kitchen floor and the ceiling of my bedroom. It will be all new and fresh."
"And what will you do, Maggie?" said her uncle, trying to make his voice indifferent as though he had no personal interest in her plans.
"I haven't thought yet," she said.
"I've an idea," he went on. "What do you say to your living with me? A nice little place somewhere in London. I've felt for a long time that I should settle down. Your father will have left you a little money—not much, perhaps, but just enough for us to manage comfortably. And there we'd be, as easy as anything. I can see us very happy together."
But he did not as yet know his niece. She shook her head.
"No," she said. "I'm going to live with Aunt Anne and Aunt Elizabeth. We wouldn't be happy, Uncle, you and I. Our house would always be in a mess and there are so many things that I must learn that only another woman could teach me. I never had a chance with father."
He had entered upon this little walk with every intention of settling the whole affair before their return. He had had no idea of any opposition—her ignorance of the world would make her easy to adapt. But now when he saw that she had already considered the matter and was firmly resolved, his arguments deserted him.
"Just consider a moment," he said.
"I think it will be best for me to live with the aunts," she answered firmly. "They have wished it before. Of course then it was impossible but now it will do very well."
He had one more attempt.
"You won't be happy there, my dear, with all their religion and the rest of it—and two old maids. You'll see no life at all."
"That depends upon myself," she answered, "and as to their religion at least they believe in it."
"Yes, your Aunt Anne is a very sincere woman," Uncle Mathew answered grimly.
He was angry and helpless. She seemed suddenly some one with whom it was impossible to argue. He had intended to be pathetic, to paint delightful pictures of uncle and niece sheltering snugly together defended by their affection against a cold and hostile London. His own eyes had filled with tears as he thought of it. What a hard, cold-hearted girl she was! Nevertheless for the moment he abandoned the subject.
That she should go and live with her aunts was not for Maggie in any way a new idea. A number of years ago when she had been a little girl of thirteen or fourteen years of age her father had had a most violent quarrel with his sister Anne. Maggie had never known the exact cause of this although even at that period she suspected that it was in some way connected with money. She found afterwards that her father had considered that certain pieces of furniture bequeathed to the family by a defunct relation were his and not his sister's. Miss Anne Cardinal, a lady of strong character, clung to her sofa, cabinet, and porcelain, bowls, and successfully maintained her right. The Reverend Charles forbade the further mention of her name by any member of his household. This quarrel was a grievous disappointment to Maggie who had often been promised that when she should be a good girl she should go and stay with her aunts in London. She had invented for herself a strange fascinating picture of the dark, mysterious London house, with London like a magic cauldron bubbling beyond it. There was moreover the further strangeness of her aunt's religion. Her father in his anger had spoken about "their wicked blasphemy," "their insolence in the eyes of God," "their blindness and ignorant
conceit." Maggie had discovered, on a later day, from her uncle that her aunts belonged to a sect known as the Kingscote Brethren and that the main feature of their creed was that they expected the second coming of the Lord God upon earth at no very distant date.
"Will it really happen, Uncle Mathew?" she asked in an awe-struck voice when she first heard this.
"It's all bunkum if you ask me," said her uncle. "And it's had a hardening effect on your aunts who were kind women once, but they're completely in the hands of the blackguard who runs their chapel, poor innocents. I'd wring his neck if I caught him."
All this was very fascinating to Maggie who was of a practical mind with regard to the facts immediately before her but had beyond them a lively imagination. Her life had been so lonely, spent for the most part so far from children of her own age, that she had no test of reality. She did not see any reason why the Lord God should not come again and she saw every reason why her aunts should condemn her uncle. That London house swam now in a light struck partly from the wisdom and omniscience of her aunts, partly from God's threatened descent upon them.
Aunt Anne's name was no longer mentioned in St. Dreot's but Maggie did not forget, and at every new tyranny from her father she though t to herself—"Well, there is London. I shall be there one day."
As they walked Maggie looked at her uncle. What was he really? He should be a gentleman and yet he didn't look like one. She remembered things that he had at different times said to her.
"Why, look at myself!" he had on earlier days, half-maudlin from "his drop at the 'Bull and Bush,'" exclaimed to Maggie, "I can't call myself a success! I'm a rotten failure if you want to know, and I had most things in my favour to start with, went to Cambridge, had a good opening as a barrister. But it wasn't quick enough for me. I was restless and wanted to jump the moon—now look at me! Same with your father, only he's put all his imagination into money—same as your aunts have put theirs into religion. We're not like ordinary people, us Cardinals."
"And have I got a lot of imagination too?" Maggie had asked on one occasion.
"I'm sure I don't know," her uncle had answered her. "You don't look to me like a Cardinal at all—much too quiet. But you may have it somewhere. Look out for a bad time if you have."
Today Maggie's abrupt checking of his projects had made him sulky and he talked but little. "Damn it all!" he had started out with the most charming intentions towards the girl and now look at her! Was it natural conduct in the day after she had lost her only protector? No, it was not. Had she been pretty he might have, even now, forgiven her, but today she looked especially plain with her pale face and shabby black dress and her obstinate mouth and chin. He was uneasy, too, about the imminent arrival of his sister Anne, who always frightened him and made him think poorly of the world in general. No hope of getting any money out of her, nor would Charles have left him a penny. It was a rotten, unsympathetic world, and Uncle Mathew cursed God as he strutted sulkily along. Maggie also had fallen into silence.
They came at last out of the wood and stood at the edge of it, with the pine trees behind them, looking down over Polchester. On this winter's afternoon Polchester with